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India's farmers resist GM

The Coalition for a GM-free India, representing hundreds of farmers’ unions, environmental and women’s organisations and organic farming groups from 15 Indian states, this week marched in Delhi against the sale and distribution of genetically-modified (GM) crops and seeds. In particular, they are opposed to an experimental type of Bt brinjal (aubergine) recently approved for large-scale field trials.

Bt - Bacillus thuringiensis – is a naturally occurring bacteria that produces a protein toxic to certain types of insects. The gene that produces the toxin – the Bt gene – can be transferred to seeds, making them more resistant to that insect. There are two major problems with this approach. Firstly, whilst it may reduce the impact of one pest, it can open the door to others. Instead of reducing reliance on fertilisers, farmers will have to pay for the expensive GM seed AND for insecticides to tackle other pests.

Secondly, experts worry that such crops may evoke natural selection and a proliferation of mutant insects resistant to Bt. The natural Bt bacterium is a crucial insecticide in organic farming. Insects with resistance would threaten the future of organic farming. GM crops can also have indirect environmental effects, by changing traditional land management practices that are in reality more sustainable.

When Indian farmers were coerced into using GM cotton, they were plagued by different, and increased numbers, of pests and diseases; deaths of livestock grazed on cotton fields and reports of allergic reactions in humans – and all with no increase in yields whatsoever. In spite of these disasters, the government continues to allow the agri-corporations to use India as a testing ground. Now Mahyco, the Indian branch of Monsanto, plans to start large-scale trials of Bt brinjal from June this year. Also being tested is a Bt okra plant which campaigners claim was planted in breach of environmental regulations for the oversight of trials.

Alongside their activities in India, the agri-corporations are tied in with the aid arm of the US government (USAid) in a project to transform Africa into the biggest GM testing ground of all. Tempting governments with “Trojan horse crops” such as a GM sweet potato in Kenya and a GM potato in Egypt, the corporations have enticed African governments to drop their opposition. As in India, it is ordinary farmers – for example in Mali – who are leading the resistance, unimpressed by claims that GM is the answer to hunger in Africa.

And these claims – now rising to a clamour in response to the capitalist-engineered food crisis – persist, even though new studies clearly show that GM crops actually CUT productivity. A three-year research project by the University of Kansas found that GM soya produces about 10% less food than its conventional equivalent. The outcomes with GM cotton are the same, with lower yields not only in India and China but also in the US.

Last month, the results of a painstaking examination of global agriculture gave no support to GM crops. In a 110-page report released by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), 400 of the world’s leading scientist explored how agriculture can be reinvented to meet population growth, climate change and the growing food crisis. They conclude that industrial, large-scale agriculture is unsustainable, and that traditional systems that produce food whilst sustaining clean water and preserving biodiversity are more likely to improve the lives of poor people. Not surprisingly, Syngenta and other biotech and pesticide companies pulled out of this assessment process.

A recent report highlighted on the AWTW website says that about 200,000 small farmers in India have killed themselves in the last 12 years and the highest number of suicides were in the state of Maharashtra. The report calls it “the graveyard of farmers today”. And that is where the Bt brinjal trials will be located.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
8 May 2008

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